Design with the Other 90% hits home

CDC exhibition brings attention to solutions for urban plight

Design exhibitions tend to focus on extravagances like fine jewelry, fancy cars, finely wrought spigots, and their ilk. With that in mind, Design with the Other 90%: CITIES, currently on view at the David J. Sencer CDC Museum, throws these notions in high relief by casting a spotlight on design innovation in areas where running water would be a luxury.

This exhibition, the second in a series organized by Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, features 60 projects that address the multiple issues arising from life in informal settlements, commonly known as slums, such as the lack of potable water and crowded living conditions. The resulting design initiatives reveal as much about life in these areas as they present ingenious solutions.

Several designs utilize affordable and plentiful materials to create multi-use structures, shedding light on the landscape, climate, and living conditions in these areas. In Bangladesh, floating community lifeboats designed by architect Mohammed Rezwan provide schools, libraries, and health clinics to areas which suffer flooding on a regular basis. The boats resemble traditional riverboats in design and utilize local materials — a move that gives a nod to Bangladeshi culture as well as renewal and inexpensive materials — with the addition of solar panels for charging computers and medical equipment. In the Philippines, a school made of bamboo also offers shelter for poor residents during typhoons.

Between displays of houses made of sandbags and vertical farming strategies are images of their inhabitants, adding an empathetic note to the exhibition. In one photograph, carefree children run toward stairs in Venezuela that have been redesigned with gutters to prevent flooding and trash buildup. In another, women and children in Cairo sort through waste to generate a small income, most too intent on their task to look up at the camera. The power of the images is not lost on this exhibition; one of the featured projects is street artist JR’s 28 Millimetres: Women Are Heroes, in which the faces of local women are imposed in vinyl upon walls and public stairs to bring attention to the impact of women in their communities.

Though the focus of the exhibition is international, there are several ideas that could be applied to issues in the United States. A bicycle-powered phone charger made for electricity-less communities in Tanzania would have been greatly appreciated by New Yorkers in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. A cart with a seat designed to give street vendors dignity and convenience brings attention to a sector of society most dismiss as annoyances, and will give pause to Atlantans who pass through the Five Points MARTA station. And for all MARTA-using Atlantans, the redesigned rapid-transit system in Guangzhou, China, which serves 800,000 passengers a day and has improved its speed and efficiency by 30 percent, will produce flat-out envy.

Indeed, wall text describing the migration of populations into cities in search of work and greater social mobility recalls America’s shifts in the past century, and serves as a reminder that many of these issues ring true here. Yet these problems also present opportunities for change. With urban density on the rise and populations continuing to increase, solutions like the ones presented here will become even more crucial in years to come.